October 5th

Curt’s face hurt.

It wasn’t anything that half a minute with the Parkers couldn’t fix, but it would be distracting. At least it was only his cheek – he didn’t have to worry about his eye, or his aim being impaired.

‘Right this way,’ the man said, pointing down one of the halls that led off the reception. ‘Who’s the Agent in charge?’

‘Taylor,’ Curt said, working his jaw around.

The walked into the office, and he was met with a scene bizarrely like the one he had left with the recruits – people sitting on and around desks that clearly didn’t belong to them.

And in the centre was a scene that would make any health and safety officer – or any decent human being – sick to their stomach.

A combat recruit lay in a pool of their own blood, their blue uniform stained nearly black. They weren’t moving – unconscious, rather than dead.

Curt knew it spoke volumes about him that he didn’t flinch from all the blood, or the struggling recruit.

The man who had escorted him into the room handed the phone to a man in a red motorcycle jacket – which, if the locals were anything like the Solstice he was used to dealing with, meant that it was actually a bullet-proof vest, just designed in such a way not to catch attention.

The answer was easy: aim for his head.

The man in the jacket tapped on the phone, assumably hitting the single contact icon on the home screen, and lifted it to his ear. ‘Call me Ishmael,’ he said as the phone connected. ‘I have five of your people, that’s five chances for you to fuck up, proxy.’

He knew Taylor would growl to that, and he hoped that Magnolia was the one holding the phone.

The man who had led him into the room – Kaden, according to the name tag sewn into his tradie shirt – shoved him towards the bound recruits, but made no move to tie him up. Another tactical judgment.

He finally recognised the dying combat recruit – Will. His left hand was gone, and though a strap had been tied around the stump, he was still losing a lot of blood – he had minutes, if that, before he’d only be another corpse for the Parkers to play with.

‘No. Unacceptable,’ “Ishmael” said. ‘Our vehicle, not yours.’

Curt looked around at the other three combat recruits, who, despite still having ten fingers and ten toes, were faring barely better than Will.

All were beaten, all were bound and gagged.

He turned and looked at his escort. ‘Can I check on my people?’

‘Do it slowly,’ Kaden said, approaching, and brandishing his gun in a gesture Curt was sure was supposed to be intimidating.

He looked like a posing douchebag.

Curt bent over Will, rolled him onto his back, and brought his stump up onto his chest. He immediately pulled his belt from his pants and wrapped it around the stump, adding backup to the thin strap they’d already added – it probably wasn’t a Parkers-approved action, but it was better than nothing.

Will’s life expectancy was in the minutes, if that.

There was a look that people – human and fae – got about them when death was near.

He moved to the next combat recruit, who started at his touch, eyes opening and flaring, then relaxing as they recognised his uniform. ‘Agent Taylor’s negotiating for your release,’ he said as slowly and calmly as he could, careful not to put any emphasis on any word, just in case it sounded as though he had a plan.

Curt checked on the other two recruits, and listened as Ishmael continued to rant his bog-standard anti-Agency diatribe into the phone.

He refused to look at the man, lest he have the urge to coach the man on how to sound like a more credible threat.

Thankfully, the sprinklers started a moment later.

Ear-splitting noise made him double over and his shoulder slammed into Will’s side.

Oscillating high frequencies, a hundred times worse than nails on a chalkboard rang through him, completely paralysing him.

He felt Will disappear, and seconds later, so did the noise.

Magnolia appeared in front of him, her knife at his eye level as he sat up, ears still ringing.

He heard shots, and knew that staying down was probably smartest, but training demanded he get up, that he help if he could.

The ringing in his ears disappeared, one benefit of the Agency that he received: auditory distress never lasted long, and no recruit ever had hearing damage from being around weapons without suppressors.

Magnolia offered him a hand and he stood.

The room was quiet. All of the Solstice except Ishmael were dead, and Hewitt’s team had the man well in hand.

Only the part-timer remained. Curt caught Magnolia’s gaze, and she followed down the deathtrap of a skinny hallway towards the reception area.

‘Raz,’ Curt hissed as he ducked into the door of an office just before the reception. ‘Can you get those fucking-’

The sprinklers turned stopped sprinkling.

‘Yeah, that, thanks.’

He came out from the door, and looked to the rounded mirror above the entrance to the lift well, and its fisheye reflection back into the reception area.

The part-timer sat behind the tall counter, gun in his hand.

He wasn’t moving – it was the stillness of someone with control over themselves, over the situation.

It wasn’t the movements of the same scared newbie that had escorted him up from the ground floor – unless the guy was a good actor, which wasn’t out of the question.

Some people worked in shipping because they weren’t good enough to do anything else.

He tried to ping the weapon that the young man held, but only got a dull tone in his ear – no chance of dismissing it.

Some people worked in shipping, because their talents weren’t needed every day.

Magnolia took a step forward, but he held up his hand, stopping her.

Something about the situation wasn’t right – and a wrong move could get one or both of them killed.

He required a riot shield and a flashbang. He wrapped his arm through the shield grip and handed Magnolia the grenade. ‘On three,’ he mouthed.

He counted slowly, then sprang forward, holding the shield to cover them both as they rushed the last few feet to the end of the hall.

Magnolia pulled the pin and expertly lobbed the grenade over the desk, then grabbed him and pushed him against the wall as it exploded, shielding him from the blast like the action hero she was.

Curt dropped the shield and rushed forward – if the bastard was going to spring up and shoot anyone, then it should be someone the Agency didn’t value.

He rounded the desk, and saw the young man silently gasping in pain.

Magnolia leapt over the high edge of the counter.

Curt kicked away the Solstice’s gun, looked for any other immediate threats from the groaning man, then knelt on one knee, already seeing the telltale black shadows beneath the white shirt.

He gripped the Solstice’s shirt collar and pulled popping buttons, seeing what he knew would be there – interrogator tattoos.

Curt stood, idly wondering if every interrogator had to work S&F at some point.

The Solstice jerked, his hand going towards his pocket.

‘Don’t!’ Curt snapped.

The Solstice’s face twisted into a snarl as his hand went into his pocket. ‘Eat shit, proxy.’

Curt fired, and the Solstice went limp, his body flopping back onto the wet floor.

‘That was decisive,’ Magnolia said as she jumped down onto the floor.

‘His tattoos,’ Curt said. ‘Means he’s an interrogator. The shapes and the colours indicate what he worked on.’ He knelt and pushed the torn fabric aside. ‘Killing him was a public service. The vine is for the first nymph, and a leaf for everyone after. The sun form means he did…Solstice internal affairs and went to work on people who weren’t pulling the party line. The blue feather…agent. Black feathers?’ he said, pressing his fingers to the dead skin and the dozen small feathers there. ‘Recruits.’ He stood and wiped his hands on his pants. ‘He didn’t deserve mercy.’

Magnolia smiled that smile that was half-arousing, half-terrifying. ‘I wasn’t planning on being merciful.’ Magnolia’s hand touched his shoulder. ‘Efficient work, techs are coming, let’s let them do their thing.’

Curt took a moment to require a dry uniform, then the world blurred, landing them back in the main hall of the combat floor.

He hesitated for a moment, wondering if she wanted him to stay or go.

She stared for a moment, then grabbed him by his tie, tugged on it for a playful moment, then turned and walked off towards her room.

They got to her room quickly enough, and she locked the door once they were inside.

‘We were interrupted,’ Magnolia said as she pushed him up against the pale pink wall.

‘I noticed. Trust me, I noticed.’

She stared deeply into his eyes, the intensity almost frightening. She pressed on his shoulders for a moment before, ensuring he stayed in place, then moved her hands to his pants.

The belt came away easily, his pants and boxers falling at her touch.

She wrapped her hand around him, and began to gently work the area, her fingers finding the perfect positions as she began to pump her hand back and forth.

‘You did good,’ she said, still looking at him. ‘Your assessment, your actions, your follow through. Very, very good O’Connor.’

He blundered a “thank you” as he fought to stay upright, his eyes rolling back into his head at the expert touch.

‘If you’re up for it,’ she said, squeezing him a little tighter to get his attention, ‘I can bring you on a few more missions. Unofficially, of course, you’re still on probation.’

‘Yeah,’ he said between heavy gasps, ‘I think I’d like that.’

She took her hand away, and he groaned in agony. She grabbed him again, and swung him down onto the bed, his legs hanging off the side. He stared up at the ceiling, trusting her enough to wait for whatever was to come.

His clothes disappeared, leaving the odd tingle of dismissal on his skin.

She knelt between his legs, and took him in her mouth, leaving her hands free to cup and tease him.

He came a moment later, and he heard her spit, then she crawled up to sit on his chest. ‘I can kick you out, or you can come spar in the gym with me, I need to do some cooldown exercises.’

It was the first time she’d invited him to anywhere but her bed, and somehow, it meant more.

‘If you wouldn’t mind the company, then sure.’

She threw him a towel. ‘Just don’t embarrass me,’ she said, but there was no harsh edge to her tone.

He cleaned up, required a training uniform, and followed her down to the gym.

Hewitt sat on an exercise mat, stretching his legs as he spoke into a tape recorder – a first draft of his mission report, by the sound of it.

Magnolia required her own mat and sat across from him, her dress reducing to a simple white tank top, and a far less fluffy skirt.

Curt required a mat of his own and tossed it down, only to have Hewitt shake his head and push it further towards Magnolia. ‘Caipe’s going to be joining us, and bringing snacks if we’re lucky.’

‘You check on Will?’ Magnolia asked as she rolled her shoulders and laid down over one leg, her fingers grabbing her toes.

‘Doctor Psycho was mad that he won’t get to make a hand puppet, and he’s going to be out of commission for a while, but he’ll make a full recovery. He’s going to have a slow return-to-work program, so he might be able to help you with the paperwork if you want, ma’am.’

‘We’ll see,’ Magnolia said noncommittally.

‘You did good,’ Hewitt said, as he changed his stretches to the side closer to Curt. ‘A lot of Field guys try and pull rank, or be all pompous and shit. You just got it done, it’s appreciated.’

‘Anytime,’ Curt said, only a little surprised to realise he meant it.

‘Magnolia, we’ve still got a spare for Friday,’ Hewitt said. ‘It’s up to you.’

Magnolia sighed and put her hair up into a bun. ‘You like Tural theatre, O’Connor?’

‘Haven’t seen much of it, but it’s ok. I don’t have a lot of spare time to be a patron of the arts.’

‘Caipe works at Orrick’s-’ Hewitt started.

‘Who are cheap bastards,’ another voice said.

The quokka walked into the room, his appearance mostly human, except for a bit of fur around his ears, and the distinct always-smiling look on his face, his appearance became completely human as he moved to sit in Hewitt’s lap – though the smile remained. ‘I could only get a half dozen Perfect Cakes, and they’re two days old a that. Oh, and some colk burgers, if anyone likes that crap.’

Curt held back a smirk at the harsh words being at odds with the man’s smiling face.

Hewitt kissed his boyfriend. ‘Just because you hate it…’ he said, grabbing for the bag.

‘You were saying,’ Curt said, surprised to have one of the tiny purple cakes thrown at him.

‘He’s the lighting engineer,’ Hewitt said, requiring a plate and a bottle of sauce for the burger.

‘I’m the tech,’ Caipe said, ‘I spend more time running the antiviruses than actually setting up the lights.’

‘And,’ Hewitt said, breaking in, ‘it’s the last week of the current show, so friends and family get in for half price. It’s a theme dinner, so you have to book and buy a table of five. So far, it’s me, Magnolia, Screen and Sacha. We’ve got a leftover, and I think you’ve earned it.’

Magnolia caught his gaze for a moment, smiled, and went back to her exercises.

‘Sure,’ Curt said, feeling a genuine smile on his face. ‘I’d love to.’

 

Three Hours Later

Magnolia never let him stay the night – it wasn’t something he’d pushed, simply glad to have whatever attention and affection that she chose to give to him. She’d explained that it wasn’t personal, just a trust thing, and that there were few people she trusted that much.

He walked down the combat hall – it was quickly becoming familiar, and far more welcoming than the Field floor had ever been. It was somewhere he felt-

He pressed the elevator call button, too tired and too lazy to take the stairs.

Comfortable. He felt comfortable on the Combat floor.

The people who acknowledged him, acknowledged him freely, and the ones that didn’t…that was the casual disinterest of people who worked in different departments, not the glares and stares of his supposed peers who couldn’t get past the facts of his past.

And those facts, at the end of the day, were all that ever counted.

They were a black mark in everything but official status. Recruits didn’t want to associate with someone who’d worked for the enemy – and people tended to treat it as far more of a black and white situation than it truly was, as if everything was just a real-life, grown-up version of cops and robbers.

Solstice bad. Agency good. Never the twain shall meets. Gradations didn’t exist. Exceptions weren’t made.

He stepped into the lift and pressed the button for his floor, for his dorm room and the emptiness inside.

He hadn’t bothered to customise the room, other than the concession of adding a desk so that he didn’t have to complete paperwork in a meeting room where he could be seen by other recruits.

It was still the standard colours, the walls still held no posters or decorations, the fridge was default, the bathroom was default.

It was Agency through and through, just as he was supposed to be.

He stepped out of the lift and made his way quickly down the halls, strokes of dumb luck allowing him to avoid all of the Field recruits that were still up. He pushed open his door, closed it, and leaned against it for a moment, exhaling a long breath.

He was home, as empty as the world felt.

He took his phones from his pockets, hung up his jacket, and walked into the bathroom.

He dismissed the remainder of his uniform, stepped into the shower, and again, fruitlessly, tried to wash his tattoos away.

They never went away.

He washed his hair, then stayed beneath the spray for a few minutes, trying to relax, trying to think of nothing.

He turned off the water, towelled himself dry, and walked back into the main room, requiring crisp new boxers as walked onto the cool tiles of the kitchenette.

He opened one of the cupboards above the sink, lifted down a small pill bottle and took two – seeing that his supply was almost gone. The pills were, like a lot of Parker specials, not something that you could simply require a fresh supply of. They were controlled, and continually adjusted.

He swallowed two with some water, and placed the glass on the side of the sink, knowing it would be gone by the time he got into bed – the kitchenette self-clean subroutines worked, even if they hadn’t deigned to turn them on in the rest of the room.

Sleeping pills to let him get more than an hour’s rest.

It had taken months of tweaking – and that was after the months it had taken to make the request of Parker-2, who was, contrary to the rest of the recruit population, the only agent he liked. The only one he felt comfortable around, despite the repeated pleas for spare organs or participation in what had to be Geneva-convention-banned science experiments.

Parker-2 was mad in the cackling mad-scientist-in-a-tower way – he frequently called out the idea that doctors were to do no harm as a fallacy – as they knew best how to do harm, and he seemed to see recruits as interesting meat puzzles, rather than people.

He was also the only honest agent he knew.

Ryan kept too much to himself. Taylor put up so much of a front it was farcical – he knew most people couldn’t read into the tiny twitches, though Magnolia was probably the best Taylor-linguist around. Jones was just too nice – he could relax around Jones, but no agent was truly that nice.

Parker-2 didn’t give a single fuck about being nice.

Even Parker-1 kept up the act that he was “nice”, that he was a doctor you could trust. That he was the “good twin”.

Parker-2 just made his opinions known, and didn’t give a shit who disagreed with him.

That frightened the other recruits. The brazenness. The cruelty. The haphazardly wielded scalpels. The blood lab coats.

Recruits lucky enough to know that the agents worth fearing always appeared to be decent people.

Recruits that would always be fooled by a sharp suit and a profession smile.

He put the pill bottle away.

Months of tweaking, and so far, all they had managed to do was keep him asleep, the nightmares still came, but at least he got enough sleep to function the next day.

Nightmares. Memories. Synonyms.

He crossed the small space, climbed into bed, and hoped not to dream of sharp suits, and sharper knives.

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